Hello and welcome to the next stop on our taste tour of Italy, the breathtaking Valle d’Aosta. Nestled high in the Alps between Switzerland and France lies Italy’s smallest region, Valle d’Aosta (vahl-le dah-aw-stah).
It is hardly what most people think of when we talk about Italy or Italian food. The climate is rugged and bitterly cold and the people blonde haired and blue eyed. French and Italian are both official languages but many people still speak Valdotain, a Gallo Romance language that goes back to the 8th century.
The cuisine of this region is simple, hearty and rich with substantial soups, polenta and fabulous cheeses dominating the table. Valle d’Aosta is famous for Fontina, a beautiful, nutty, raw cow’s milk cheese that has been made there since the 12th century. Pasta is not much of a player, but gnocchi are everywhere. One famous regional dish made with Fontina cheese is called Gnocchi alla Bava, literally “Drooling Gnocchi”. They say it is named for the melting strings of cheese in the sauce, but I think it is because of what happens when you catch the first whiff!
The history of this area is as rich as the food. The original Salasi tribes, people of Celtic descent, were conquered by Rome in 25 BCE. Caesar built a stronghold to secure the critical mountain passes there and left behind stunning Roman ruins, as well as the name of the region itself. Valle d’Aosta means “Valley of Augustus”. Because of its seasonal isolation and difficult terrain, local traditions have been better maintained here than in many other parts of Italy. During ancient occupations by the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards and throughout 1000 years under the Kingdom of Savoy, the people of Valle d'Aosta fiercely defended their cultural autonomy. In 1191, the Savoy king found it necessary to grant the local communes a Charte des franchises (Charter of LIberties) which preserved the rights of local governance for the next 600 years. Even today, Valle d’Aosta maintains a special autonomous status within the Italian Government.
Simple, robust, no-nonsense. These words describe both the people and the food of Valle d’Aosta. There is nothing fussy or frivolous about this cuisine. A harsh climate demands hearty food that warms both body and soul. So knock the snow off your boots, pull your chair up to the fire and enjoy a big bowl of steaming Gnocchi alla Bava!
Gnocchi alla Bava
For the sauce
1 stick butter
2 cups good beef or chicken broth (preferably homemade)
½ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups Fontina cheese, coarsely shredded
Melt butter in a frying pan
Add broth and cream and boil all together for a minute or two until sauce is slightly thickened
Add salt and pepper to taste
Cover and set aside
For the gnocchi
2 pounds of Idaho potatoes (about 4 large) unpeeled and scrubbed
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 cups all purpose flour (approx)
few gratings of fresh nutmeg
Boil potatoes in salted water until easily pierced with a fork (about 30-40 minutes).
Remove the potatoes to a cookie sheet and dry in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes.
Using a dish towel to hold the hot potatoes, cut each one in half and press it through a potato ricer onto a clean dish towel in a single layer. Allow the riced potatoes to cool completely. This is really important for light gnocchi. The more moisture that remains in the potatoes, the heavier your gnocchi will be.
Gather the riced potatoes into a mound on a countertop or pasta board.
Sprinkle a little flour over the potatoes to coat them, add the teaspoon of salt and a few gratings of nutmeg.
Make a well in the center of the mound, break in the egg and gently mix it into the riced potatoes.
Begin to add more flour, mixing in only enough to make a dough that holds together.
Knead very lightly for just a few seconds.
Cover the dough with a towel and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes. This will rest the dough and make rolling it out much easier.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces and gently roll each one out on a floured board to make a “snake” of dough about the thickness of your thumb.
Cut the length of dough into dumplings about ¾ of an inch thick. Sprinkle them generously with flour.
Using a fork or a gnocchi board (or even a sushi mat!) flick the little pillows of dough with your thumb to make an indentation in the center and ridges on the outside. The thumbprint will thin the dough and allow it to cook evenly and the ridges will hold more of your delicious sauce.
Fresh gnocchi do not keep, so either cook immediately or freeze in a single layer on a cookie sheet and store in freezer bags until ready to cook. Fresh gnocchi can also be blanched briefly and finished in sauce later (which is what we are doing for this recipe).
To assemble the dish
Cook gnocchi, a handful at a time, in boiling salted water. It should taste like the ocean and that means 3 or more tablespoons in 6 quarts of water. Please use kosher or sea salt because you can taste the iodine in that much table salt.
When the gnocchi float to the surface of the water, remove with a skimmer or slotted spoon into a buttered gratin dish. This will take only a few seconds if fresh, a bit longer if frozen.
Dress with the sauce and stir in about half of the Fontina cheese.
Cover with the remaining cheese (and some buttered bread crumbs if you want to gild the lily).
Bake in a 425° F oven for about 10 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden.
Gnocchi are very easy to make--and very easy to make wrong! Too often they are gummy and dense rather than melt-in-your mouth feather light like they are meant to be. Ricing the potatoes while they are still hot and allowing them to cool on a towel will help to minimize the moisture that makes gnocchi heavy. A light hand and only enough flour to hold the dough together will also help. If you want to experience first hand what the dough should feel like (and how delicious they can be), come to our next Gnocchi Class!